By Zack Abrahamson/Staff Reporter
Sam Schoenburg ’11 does not have five minutes.
“You know, I really don’t right now. I’m sorry, I’ve got to get this done,” he says, typing furiously on a keyboard at Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s Des Moines headquarters.
The Silliman College freshman is 336 miles from home, surrounded by new volunteers he does not know and running on five hours of sleep. And a doughnut.
“Sam’s a real rock star,” Obama press aide Bobby Gravitz ’04 says of Schoenburg, who volunteered with the Obama office during the summer of 2007 and returned to Des Moines earlier this month for the final push before the caucus.
The scene is the same in Iowa City, where University of Iowa junior Atul Nakhasi sits amid the detritus of his apartment on a Thursday afternoon, trying to figure out how to run the caucus in the most heavily student-populated precinct in the state of Iowa.
The Waterloo, Iowa, native is studying for medical school. “I’ve got MCATs coming up,” he says. But on this January morning, Nakhasi is tired, bleary-eyed and unshaven. He wears a gray sweatshirt and black sweatpants and looks as if he rolled out of bed 20 minutes ago — which probably isn’t far from the truth.
“It’s just a hobby,” the biology major says demurely. “[University Democrats Secretary John Mulrooney] and I both have med school coming up. But this is more important — I’m perfectly willing to miss a few biology lectures to participate in the Iowa caucus.”
After the delegates were counted on Jan. 3 it became clear that Obama rode to victory on a wave of support from first-time caucus-goers. Of caucus-goers in the 17-29 age demographic — which comprised 22 percent of Democratic turnout in the state — 57 percent supported Obama. But what those numbers cannot measure is the energy that youth provided the campaign from within. Just as important as their colleagues’ support on the evening of the third was the indefatigable volunteerism displayed by so many young campaign workers.
“You really start to appreciate coffee,” Sarah Coleman ’05 jokes from a Starbucks near the Biden for President Iowa Headquarters in Clive, Iowa. The Morse College alumna, who works as a policy advisor on Biden’s Washington Senate staff, has taken her Christmas vacation to join her family — the Biden family, that is — on the sober steppe of Iowa. “I haven’t seen a lot of Iowa,” she says. “I’ve basically been holed up at the office from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. The New Year’s celebration at La Quinta Inn was pretty tame.”
That level of devotion takes belief. For Coleman and other Biden supporters, it was a belief that if more Americans were aware of the senator’s long service in Congress, he would enjoy an unforeseen groundswell of support on caucus day. For Obama volunteers on the streets of Des Moines and Waukee, it meant believing that maybe this time a candidate’s powerful message of change would not be watered down by the bureaucratic swamp of Washington.
“I saw a huge cross-section of kids volunteering for [Obama],” Schoenburg says a week after the caucus. “The field organizations were the real bedrock of the organization in Iowa. Across the country kids are just out of college or interrupting college to do this. We’re really rolling up our sleeves to get things done here. [Students] are idealistic and yet practical enough to know that it takes a great amount of organization to get anything done.”
Students were so involved with the caucus and so aggressively courted by the candidates that campaigns like Obama’s and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s were criticized by pundits for relying too heavily on a demographic known chiefly for its inability to get out of bed in the morning.
“When the history of this Iowa caucus is written, it will be remembered as the ‘year of the new voter,’ ” Iowa Republican Party Executive Director Chuck Laudner says. “You know, historically, that 17-29 age bracket has been the most unreliable of any. But Obama and Huckabee, they changed that — they proved that’s the demographic to target. That’s the winning margin.”
In a possible foreshadowing of what the future holds for American presidential campaigns, it was Iowa college students who reached out to their peers and brought them into the caucus process. Drake University Political Science professor Arthur Sanders thinks this year’s contest has generated more student interest than any other he can recall since arriving at Drake in 1990. At the center of the storm were students, putting in long hours and little sleep for the candidates they believed in.
“With this campaign, there’s a chance to be a part of something historic — to be part of something that comes along once in a lifetime if we’re lucky,” Schoenburg says. “I’ve never worked with such a passionate, dedicated crowd who worked tirelessly — as tired as they were — to get this done.”